An Interview With Judith Campisi

Scientific American interviews Judith Campisi, a member of the SENS Research Foundation's scientific advisory board and a noted figure in the aging research community. You'll note that her views are fairly conservative, much closer to the mainstream of longevity science than to SENS, however:

[SciAm]: Why is it so hard to figure out what causes aging?

[Judith Campisi]: In many ways we already know what causes aging. We just don't know what causes aging in the kind of molecular detail that would allow us to intervene in large meaningful ways. It's not even clear that once we solve those mysteries we will be able to intervene in aging or dramatically extend longevity.

I started my career studying cancer. Look at all the things we have learned since the 1970s about how cancers form in the body. And yet, still the best cures we have for most cancers are sledgehammers. Biology is complex - and this is a reality that the public has to come to grips with and our legislators have to come to grips with.

I predict aging will follow the same trajectory as cancer research. Why is aging so difficult to figure out? It's because it's a really tough problem. I think it's tougher than cancer. The time has come to really wallow in the complexities.

[SciAm]: What would you say is one of the biggest mysteries of aging research?

[Judith Campisi]: Why do organisms with remarkable genetic similarity have sometimes remarkable differences in life span? We know that for the most part, many of the processes that go on in the human body also go on in yeast and mice. Yet, yeast live a few days, a mouse lives about three years, and people live for decades. We really do not know what evolution has done to take basically the same genes and produce different life spans.

[SciAm]: Is that where the naked mole rat comes in?

[Judith Campisi]: Yes. The mystery shows up even in species that are mouselike. The naked mole rat is more related to the mouse than to us - it looks like a mouse. And yet it lives for 30 years, or 10 times longer than a regular mouse. On top of all that, it has signs of oxidative damage that exceeds that of the mouse.

Now there are three ideas that scientists have come up with to try to explain why naked mole rats live so long: Maybe oxidative damage doesn't cause aging. Maybe naked mole rats are evolutionary oddities. And then my personal favorite, maybe it's not oxidative damage that is the problem but how the cell responds to the damage. But that's all speculative.



I think the analogy to cancer is inapt. Cancers involve rapid mutation, natural selection and spatial sorting (a.k.a. "survival of the fastest") that acts as an engine of innovation. We have not been unsuccessful in killing cancer cells. We have been (mostly) unsuccessful in thwarting this "intelligent" adversary that innovates against us. To fight cancer is to run the Red Queen's race.

Against cancer, half-measures are worthless. It will rebound and regrow in short order. Against ageing, half-measures are golden. The part that you didn't cure will only accumulate at the same intrinsic rate that it did before and you've bought significant time.

Posted by: José at February 8th, 2013 10:48 AM

I think that her views are not conservative, but realistic.

Posted by: anonimen at February 8th, 2013 1:25 PM

@anonimen: Pessimistic ≠ Realistic, despite that this passes as an axiom for many people. If you think her views are realistic, would you care to provide a defence of them rather than just a mere assertion? I have assailed one (of her views) in particular, and I don't see you arguing for its realism. Ultimately, the test of realism in speculative waters, where direct evidence cannot be employed, should include as paramount the logical defensibility and rigour of the statement in question. Bare assertions and implicit appeal to the post-modern pessimistic Zeitgeist are much less inherently persuasive to the rational thinker.

Posted by: José at February 8th, 2013 8:13 PM

With regards to the cancer analogy, we do have treatments that are extremely effective against cancer, at least initially. It's not all that uncommon to be able to wipe out 99.9% of cancer cells, it's just that natural selection ruins things by ensuring that the 0.1% of remaining cancer cells are now resistant to the treatment, and will go on to multiply rapidly. This isn't a factor in aging; if someone came up with a treatment that eliminated 99.9% of aging damage, then that alone would be enough to keep someone healthy for the next 80,000 years, because the aging damage not effected by the treatment increases linearly rather than the exponential rate seen in treatment resistant cancer cells.

Posted by: Arcanyn at February 8th, 2013 11:46 PM

My only defense is that the claims made by De Grey have no basis, except for wishful thinking. He can't just say "Give me a billion and I will cure aging in 20 years" (already heard this for cancer and Alzheimer) or "the first person to turn 150 is already born and the first person to turn 1000 is born 20 years after him". These claims are so speculative. People repeatedly fail to predict the future developments in their own fields.

Future is unpredictable. We could cure aging after 10 years, but it could also happen after 100. And since we are just beginning to tackle this complex problem and the funding is scarce, it is reasonable to for me to be pessimistc.

Posted by: anonimen at February 9th, 2013 5:42 AM

@anonimen: So your defence of the cancer analogy is to change the subject completely? Oh well, let's look at these new arguments of yours.

You say that de Grey's claims are speculative, and I think we can grant that as a premiss. You also say they're wishful thinking, but offer nothing for that other than they are speculative. Are all speculations wishful thinking? Are optimistic speculations wishful thinking while pessimistic speculations should be accepted by default? Aubrey de Grey never made that first claim you quote, which is a straw-man of your own invention.

More importantly for the overall gist of your argument, would you not agree that the claim "If you gave him a billion dollars he would not cure ageing in N years" is also a speculation? At this point you might suggest we should be agnostic between the alternatives or that burden of proof decides the issue.* However, the question remains what we should actually do. What we should do differs depending on which belief we implicitly accept about the future. The doxastic issue is not so easily avoided.

While de Grey's claims may lack a basis in scientific evidence (perforce, because they are hypotheses about the results of future experiments), they do have a basis in logical argument and reasonable, informed inferences. The book "Ending Aging" lays out these arguments in great detail. There is no reason that it should fail to sway our belief about the matter of feasibility, speculative or not, unless there is a failure in the argument. Is there such a failure? To show this, you must say something to it. Just as with the cancer vs. ageing comparison, you won't get anywhere by avoiding the meat of the argument.

* The "rule" about "proving a negative" is a principle of scientific housekeeping, adopted in order to form a coherent and cogent body of reliable knowledge about natural phenomena, not a rule of logic. In abstract logical terms there is no difference in the status of a proposition based on whether it is phrased in the negative or not.

Posted by: José at February 9th, 2013 9:48 PM

I can't see how your point differs from mine. I said that cure for aging could happen after 10 or 100 years, but pinpointing years is simply a speculation. Informed inference was that we will have Moon/Mars colony by now, no more than 640kb of memory in our computers, peaked fossil fuels, Malthus' theory and so on. Informed inferences don't mean a thing, because, as I already said, future is unpredictable. There are too many variables and unknowns.

Don't get me wrong. I fully support anti-aging research. I just like to be real about it.

Posted by: anonimen at February 11th, 2013 6:31 AM

I am 93 and take many supplements and just lately started to feel 93. I have found out that my cells are lacking something. It's L-Carnitine which I was taking and Acetyl L-Carnitine but I was not taking enough. I should be taking three grams a day which will strengthen all my body cells. I will get stronger and live longer. Thanks for nothing.

Posted by: William at February 12th, 2013 12:01 PM

I am surprised that the interviewer didn't ask Campisi about funding, eg. whether Campisi thinks aging research is adequately funded, and if not, how much of a shortfall exists (and in what areas). My personal opinions aside, that question is both pertinent and within the scope of the interview's aims.

Posted by: Anthony at February 13th, 2013 12:24 PM

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